Bristol Old Vic
One Night In Miami
Four just men
One Night in Miami at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre is your chance to be a fly on the wall at an imagined real-life meeting of four of the most iconic black men in America in 1964.
It’s February 25th and into a downtown hotel room Cassius Clay (Conor Glean) dances in, floating like a butterfly after stinging like a bee, fresh from his crowning at World Heavyweight Champion.
In one corner lounges the entrepreneurial King of Soul, Sam Cooke, with a glint in his eye and whisky in his hip flask, played by Matt Henry. Sparring him, is ace US soccer player, Jim Brown (Miles Yekinni).
They are hyped up for partying and women – more on them later. But into the mix slips slickly dressed, non-drinking, bespectacled, Nation of Islam radical, Malcolm X (Christopher Colquhoun) with a not just a chip on his shoulders but a mountain range.
Cassius, aged 22, might proclaim himself the handsome Champ after his bruising battle with Sonny Liston but he’s about to ditch booze and renounce his name to the world, become a Muslim with the moniker Muhammad Ali.
‘Who’s gonna remember that name?’ The other two ask to great laughs from the audience.
Written by Kemp Powers and directed by Matthew Xia it’s set in a hotel room bathed in sultry blue-pink lighting of a Florida sunset (designer Grace Smart and lighting by Ciara Cunningham).
Edging in at the periphery, loiter Malcolm X’s minders, Kareem (Andre Squire) and Jamaal (Oseloka Obi), with one seemingly simple and benign, sneaking ice cream and autographs, the other, icily professional.
Nobody will ever know what really went on but Powers has wrought punchy (sometimes literally) conversations that could have been dryly political but are full of passion and humour, joshing, pleading and demanding. Do you assimilate or radicalise in a country that won’t let you share a bus seat or café space?
When Olivier Award-winning Matt Henry (Kinky Boots, The Voice UK finalist) as Sam Cooke takes to the stage to sing two songs that literally the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. He is simply a star whether speaking or singing. He can belt it out and has the audience in the palm of his hand when he struts and rolls his eyes as Malcolm X tucks into vanilla ice cream, he knocks back moonshine and buys wine.
I loved Yekinni’s depiction of rangy Jim Brown’s soccer star who was also an ace basketball and lacrosse player who once wanted to get in the ring with Ali but at a practice couldn’t even touch his face such was the heavyweight champion’s sleight of movement.
Conor Glean as a young Clay, does the bouncing, dancing and preening and dubious air about giving up wine, women and his name for his new religion.
It is down to Colquhoun as Malcolm X to stir up a hornet’s nest and at times be smartly slapped down by Cooke who points out X is the only one in the room without talent or an actual job.
PHOTOS: One Night in Miami, June 2019
© Nottingham Playhouse
Cooke says his songs, recorded by the likes of the Rolling Stones, earns him a fortune from these English white guys breaking into black music.
It’s a play that goes to the heart of the terrifying era of race riots and the rise of black power, race riots and those in the civil rights movement fighting segregation and discrimination while being spied on by the FBI.
It could easily have been a dry and learned play but it is entertaining and funny and the singing is sensational, especially when Cooke reveals his activist song A Change Is Gonna Come.
There are no women and I get why the writer kept the cast all male. If life was racist in 64, women were at the very bottom of the heap. But for Malcolm X they were for leering at and playing with. Locker room banter of 'honeys' and 'pussies' despite Cooke pointing out he likes his women ‘obstreperous’.
In real life, a year after this get together, Sam Cooke was shot dead, aged 33, by a woman in a motel and Malcolm X assassinated at 39 (his father before him was brutally murdered by white supremacists).
The ending forebodes X’s death at the hands of Nation of Islam men but he’s there looking out at us, softly singing Cooke’s beautiful song about change coming.
It’s a play containing heavyweight themes which punches them as deftly as the great Ali.
One Night In Miami plays until Saturday, June 29 with Thursday and Saturday matinees. Tickets from £11.50 by calling 0117 987 7877 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.